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shameless pleading

Fever Pitch

Perchance to seethe.

Dear Word Detective: Can you please explain the origin of “fever pitch?” Is the musical notion of pitch somehow generalized to mean a rate of speed or intensity? Are you supposed to get a fever when you reach this rate? I’ve looked in your archives and in World Wide Words, and I’ve tried The Google, but I haven’t found any answers. I’m afraid I’m going to break out in a cold sweat. — Don Creach.

That’s a good question. “Fever pitch” is certainly a staple of modern news writing. At the moment, Google News offers 685 links to stories employing the phrase to describe everything from excitement over a new sports league in India (“Investing at fever pitch in India’s cricket bonanza”) to gossip over a celebrity break-up (“The buzz over Reggie Bush and Kim Kardashian’s split has reached fever pitch…”). There are also, predictably, several dozen headlines employing the phrase in connection with the health care reform bill recently passed here in the US (“Health Care Drama Reaches Fever Pitch” being typical), because the key to good journalism is, of course, bad puns.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “fever pitch” as “a state of extreme agitation or excitement,” but I’d have to add “extremely intense activity” to the list (“Bob was working at a fever pitch in a desperate attempt to meet the midnight tax deadline”). Merriam-Webster Online dates the first use of the phrase to 1846, which seems too recent to me, but I haven’t found anything to contradict that date. Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster Third International Dictionary (1961) offers a weirdly lurid definition of the term: “A degree of abnormal excitement that usually develops rapidly among a number of people and sometimes leads to impulsive violence.” I think I’ve seen that movie. Sidney Poitier makes the crowd see reason in the last reel, right?

The original sense of “pitch” when it first appeared in English as a verb around 1200 was “to thrust in, to fasten firmly” (a sense we still use when we “pitch” a tent), drawn from roots related to “pick” and “prick.” Both the verb and noun forms of “pitch” have acquired a dizzying range of meanings since then, including, for the verb, “to throw,” “to fall suddenly,” and, of course, “to try to sell or convince by persuasion.” As a noun, “pitch” began with the sense of “height, slope or angle of slope,” and then accumulated a range of meanings either associated with “slope” or tied to the verb senses of the word (e.g., a baseball “pitch”). “Pitch” in the sense of “slope” led, in the 16th century, to use of the word to mean “height” in a figurative sense, or the degree of intensity of something. Thus the “pitch” of a sound refers to its “height” or position on a scale, and the “pitch” of an activity or condition refers to its intensity (“The feelings are wound up to a pitch of agony,” William Hazlitt, 1822). This is clearly the sort of “pitch” we have in “fever pitch.”

Prefacing “pitch” with “fever” is a bit ambiguous, but I think the key to unraveling “fever pitch” lies in terms such as “fevered” and “feverish,” both of which denote a state of overwrought excitement, restless energy and delirious frenzy such as might be brought on by a severe fever. Of course, people actually in the grip of a high fever rarely get any constructive work done, and “fever pitch” taken literally would more accurately describe the state of someone wrapped in blankets babbling at the TV than our friend Bob frantically doing his taxes, but that’s the English language for you.

4 comments to Fever Pitch

  • Glenn

    Also….pitch black. Oil or tar.

  • Stuart

    It’s possible that fever-pitch resulted from a misinterpretation of the letter ‘s’ (which stylized looks much like an ‘f’). Then from there the idea of what fever-pitch might mean was conceived. Check this out.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=qPUdAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA325&dq=%22fever+pitch%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0AxaU8j4IJGYyATkh4CIDg&ved=0CEIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22fever%20pitch%22&f=false

  • Garth

    The term “fever pitch” is most certainly from the mid-19th Century and has everything to do with music. Before that time , musical instruments had been tuned to A=432Hz or a vibration of 432 times per second. In the mid-19th Century, a push was made the increase the pitch to A=440Hz or even as high as A=460Hz. This had the effect of making music sound brighter and more exciting. The composers of the time were all for this. You see, Europe was in a state of flux, with the political radicals pushing for Republicanism over Monarchism. The composers generally supported the avant-garde Republicans, and what better way than through music. This was the time of the Revolution of 1848, which ultimately brought on the unification of the German states into one country under the influence of the reformer Otto von Bismarck. The change to a higher pitch in the music was found to have a psychological effect on people, making them more excitable and/or agitated. This played them straight into the hands of the revolutionaries in a kind of mass political hysteria or “fever”. The French saw this and enacted a law establishing the original A=432Hz as their national standard. In 1939, the Propaganda Minister of Nazi Germany, Josef Goebbels, pushed for A=450Hz to be made the standard of Europe, as it was already the German srandard. It was rejected, but it really didn’t matter because most musicians, including the major orchestras of the world had already made the switch due to the heavy influence of the Jazz Age. And so today we have the “fever pitch” or A=440 to 460Hz in our music. It works especially well with rock music, for obvious reasons.
    BTW The older A=432Hz pitch is now referred to as Belconta or beautiful music. I find it much more relaxing and easier to listen to and most serious singers will tell you it is much easier on the human singing voice. Try listening to Beethoven’s 4th Movement of the 9th Symphony, The Ode to Joy, in Belconto. I can guarentee you won’t be able to hold back the tears!

  • Garth

    The term “fever pitch” comes from the mid-19th century when a switch from A=432Hz or 432 vibrations per second to no less than A=440Hz and to as high as A=460Hz was being pushed for tuning musical instruments. It was found that the higher pitch seemed brighter and more exiting to the human ear, and had a psychological effect on people, making them more excitable or agitated. This played right into the Revolution of 1848 in Europe, in which most musicians supported the avant-garde Republican movement. The change in pitch was so profound that even the Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, pushed to have it made the European standard in 1939. That wasn’t really necessary, as all the major orchestras and most musicians had already made the change due to the influence of Ragtime and the Jazz Age. The best example of the effect that the “fever pitch” or A=440-460Hz has on the human psyche is seen in the different forms of Rock Music.

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